Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, on the coast of southwestern France, is a village steeped in legend, history, and tradition that lives on today. Gypsies (Gitanes) from all over Europe gather here every spring on a pilgrimage – the Pélerinage des Gitanes – to honor their saint, Sarah.
One legend (there are many) says that close to 20 centuries ago, a boat came ashore here on the Rhone River delta. In the boat, which miraculously drifted across the Mediterranean Sea without sails or oars, were three Marys – Mary the mother of James and sister of the Virgin Mary, Mary the mother of two apostles, and Mary Magdalene. With them were other refugees, including Sarah. The Gypsies call her Sarah-la-Kali, Sara the Black.
In late May the little seaside resort town overflows with festivities and ceremony. Thousands of pilgrims and visitors come to the big, dark church to pay their respects. In the chapel crypt, candles surround the statue of Sarah, who is draped in colorful robes and jewels. Near her are notes of thanks for miracles, crutches, and prayers.
On May 24 and 25, Sarah and the Marys are carried aloft through town to the sea. Chanting crowds of Gypsies, gardiens (cowboys) on horseback, priests with megaphones, violinists, tourists, townsfolk, all march to the water where the statue is blessed before the procession heads back to the church. Then Mass is held in a church packed with fervent worshipers.
When the pilgrims leave, Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is quiet again, but there is still much to interest visitors. This part of France, the Camargue, is a mixture of wide plains, marshes, and streams. You’ll see thistles and sea lavender, pink flamingoes flying overhead, and cowboys on horseback in a wild, open country.
I recommend staying in a hotel out of town, in order to get all the Camargue offers. We liked Hotel Mas des Lys, 2 kilometers from Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The cottages were comfortable, there was a nice swimming pool, and our hosts were eager to help with suggestions. We could explore on horseback; hike beside lagoons and across dunes; birdwatch for flamingoes, herons, cormorants and gulls; and ride everywhere on bicycles. The only downside to the region, other than intense heat in summer, is the smaller wildlife: mosquitoes in abundance. Insect repellent is a necessity.
Camargue cowboys are extremely proud of their horses, and in mid-July, horses are celebrated in a big way in Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer. Riders compete for trophies, parades go through the streets, and shows with lights and music present performances of exquisitely trained horses. Flamenco dancing and music can be seen at almost every street corner and café, and bullfights are held in the arena (in French-style bullfighting, the bulls are not killed).
To learn the history of the area, visit the Baroncelli Museum, near the church in the former Town Hall. It shows history and foklore, botany and wildlife. The museum is named for Marquis de Baroncelli, a 19th-century Camargue hero who promoted the rights of minorities, especially the cowboys and Gypsies, and was known for his generosity. He helped to keep alive the authentic traditions that are honored today.
Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose